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Photography has always spent a lot of energy looking at itself, at its means and methods. In the 1850s, the inventor of photography, Henry Fox Talbot, was taking pictures of his colleagues taking pictures, and over a hundred years later, Lee Friedlander created a body of angular self-portraiture where he photographs himself watching himself as a shadow on a sidewalk or reflection in a shop window. Photographers have also been deeply in love with vernacular signage, none more so than Walker Evans. His image of a penny-picture window display (Photographer’s Window Display) crowds several sheets of wallet-sized studio portraits. It reminds us that photography can be an act of intimacy or a public epidemic — or, in our own digital days, both at once. When Eastman invented the Brownie, photography finally went from being a pictorialist fine-art pursuit to the most demotic visual language in the whole wide world.

While walking through Eyes of a Nation, I was reminded that part of the enterprise of creating an archive of the democratic masses is keeping record of the have-nots. One wishes that the eyes of our nation were more steadfastly on the poor. I suppose most viewers who warmly admire Depression-era photos of the displaced and the destitute pay slight attention to those populations. A photograph has two contrary actions: in exposing experience, it seals it off. The reality of deprivation in Arthur Rothstein’s image of a migrant family in 1936 Oklahoma is locked into our sense of historicized beauty. It requires moral effort to relate that visual evidence to contemporary fact, and to reckon with the fact that, now, too, the poor are still plentifully with us, though usually they don’t quite seem to be among us. Rothstein’s picture is composed so that the last thing we see, after we do our human-interest panning of the faces of the vigilant mother and her children — guarded or shy or happy — is the pair of open scissors in the hands of the youngest. ■

Eyes of a Nation: A Century of American Photography is on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts until May 6. 1649 El Prado, 619-238-7559; mopa.org.

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